It’s November - not the most inviting month of the year. How is it that some months last longer than others? I know that some have thirty days and some have thirty one etc., but some are much longer than others. April, May, June all flit by far too fast – it’s just possible to get the sweet flavour of them ... and then they are gone. Even wistful September slips away from us before we can start to appreciate all that she has to offer before mellow October moves in, but November goes on forever! I can still remember as a boy, waking up and rushing downstairs to ask my mother ‘is November over yet?’ She would only look down at her feet and shake her head, saying ‘no it’s still here’. November is like an unwanted guest that comes to visit and always outstays his welcome.
At least if you are an American you have the joy of Thanksgiving, family food and a long weekend off from work ; not in Britain, we suffer every day of November without any time off for good behaviour. We do, it’s true, have the 5th of November as a kind of celebration; it’s called ‘Guy Fawkes Night’ or, more commonly ‘Bonfire Night’ or ‘Firework Night’. This came into being not really because of the conspirator Guido Fawkes, but because the puritan Oliver Cromwell disliked the celebration of Halloween and had it banned. As a result, people just danced around a bonfire a few nights later, calling it a different name. In recent years, Halloween has had a resurgence in the UK and Firework Night is beginning to lose its hold.
Let’s face it, the best time to have fireworks would be the 4th July or Bastille day (14th July) or even Chinese New Year at the end of January. But no - we in Britain decide to have our fireworks in the dampest, foggiest, rainiest month of the year – November! Anyone brave enough to stand out in the cold and damp for hours on end, trying to light a firework, deserves better than to see the odd pathetic flash of light in the murky filth of a November evening. The bonfire, if it has not been soaked by the preceding week of rain, will pour out polluting smoke to make the unhappy spectators choke as they try to eat their lukewarm, damp and tasteless food. And that is only in the first week of this endless month of misery!
Quakers, as you will know, are not great ones for celebrations. The idea is that every day is a sacred gift of God and that setting days aside as ‘special’ really has no meaning. Having said this, most ‘modern Quakers’ will take breaks at Easter and Christmas as secular holidays, because the rest of the world does so, and, after all, it’s a break. I myself as a Quaker was once very dismissive of all festivals until I came upon the strange Etruscan myth of Tages, by chance. The Etruscans lived in Italy before the Romans, and much of their mythology became incorporated into Roman mythology with time. I would like to boast that I came across this myth by reading Ovid but to be honest, it was discovered in a book of Roman myths that I was reading to my eldest son while waiting for the school bus a few years back. The story instantly appealed to me and I have woven it into my appreciation of the passing of each year ever since.
Once a man was ploughing a field and came upon something strange in the soil. At first he thought that it was a stone, but being of a strange pale colour, he decided to investigate it and found it warm to the touch. On digging around the strange object it soon became clear that this was the head of a human baby. The baby was young yet could speak like an old man. Soon a crowd gathered around the baby and it began to talk, telling of many things that would be the basis of the Etruscan (and later Roman) religions. The most amusing prophesy concerns chickens , whom Tages said hold secrets in their bodies, waiting to be laid as eggs. Killing the chickens and reading their entrails can reveal the secret but it may take many years of training to learn to do this. Tages eventually turned into an old man before dying and returning to the Earth from which he had come. One of his final and seemingly most important statements was about festivals – Tages warned that festivals must be kept because festivals are the columns that hold up the year.
I like that the idea that by keeping festivals you are maintaining the shape of the year. Without them the year would just go on and meander along; those fixed points are important. Some things are predetermined for us depending on where we live; spring, first frost, leaf fall etc, but other things we build ourselves; birthdays, wedding anniversaries, MLK day, Thanksgiving and even the soggy festival of Guy Fawkes Night!
So to all American readers of this blog - enjoy the build up, preparation and execution of Thanksgiving and enjoy the time with your loved ones. For those of us who just have a long month of damp days to endure, may I remind you of the words of one of my favourite Quakers who happens, (by a strange twist of fortune) to be one of my favourite Unitarians as well, Susan B Anthony who writes about ordinary days.
More about Tages http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tages
More about Guy Fawkes http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Guy_Fawkes_Night
More about Susan B Anthony http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Susan_B._Anthony
Thomas Hood poem about November http://hayquaker1.blogspot.com/2011/11/no-thomas-hood.html